Tracker is the generic term for a class of software music sequencers which, in their purest form, allow the user to arrange sound samples stepwise on a timeline across several monophonic channels. A tracker's interface is primarily numeric; notes are entered via the keyboard, whilst length, parameters, effects and so forth are entered in hexadecimal. A complete song consists of several small multi-channel patterns chained together via a master list.



The term tracker derives from Ultimate Soundtracker, the first of its type, written by Karsten Obarski and released in 1987 for the Commodore Amiga, although the general concept of step-sequencing samples numerically can be traced back to the Fairlight CMI sampling workstation of the late 1970s, and it is interesting to compare the work of The Art of Noise or the Pet Shop Boys with early tracker music. A tracker song, when saved to disk, typically incorporates all the sequencing data plus samples, and thus during the format's heyday it became almost a sport to create long, complex .mod (or .sng) files which were nonetheless smaller than 880 kB. Typically the composer would incorporate his or her assumed name into the list of samples.

Curiously, most tracker musicians appeared to be from the UK and the Nordic nations, probably because the tracker was heavily related to the Demo scene, which grew rapidly in Scandinavian countries. For example, one of the most influential PC trackers, ScreamTracker was originally developed by Future Crew for use in their own demos.

The edit window of a tracker resembles a player piano scroll, moving from the bottom of the screen upwards. The first trackers allowed for only four channels of 8-bit music, although as the notes were samples this limitation was less important than those of synthesising music chips, such as Commodore's SID or General Instrument's venerable AY-3-8912 and Yamaha's compatible YM2149, as the user could sample chords, for example, and play them back on a single channel, a process which became a cliche in early pop-rave chart tunes; rapid chordal stabs, often of fifths, were the hallmark of Altern-8 and other transient techno phenomena. Later tracker software, most famously OctaMED, allowed for eight channels of music or more, whilst special hardware could allow for 16-bit playback.

Karsten Obarski's original Ultimate Soundtracker, often just called Soundtracker, was originally an internal development tool for EAS (a German Software Company) which goes some way towards explaining its programmer-friendly interface. The company eventually released it as a commercial product. Soundtracker itself was never a very big success, as it was technically very limited and user-unfriendly, but soon illegally cracked and improved versions such as MasterSoundtracker, ProTracker and NoiseTracker became extremely popular. The machines on which tracker software ran were not expensive, particularly in the UK, where the Amiga and Atari ST were the default home computer choice during the six or so years spanning the dawn of the 1990s. Thus, tracker music became something of an underground punk phenomenon, especially as so much contemporary chart music was then sample-based dance music, a genre which was relatively simple to produce with step-based sequencing. Tracker music was a fantastic training ground for a generation of electronic dance musicians, many of whom saved up for an Akai sampler, a multi-effects unit, a mixer and a microphone, thence to storm the charts.

There was a downside to all this, however, in that 'tracker music' became something of a term of derision for stereotypically ravey, computer-game-style pop tunes, whilst the difficulty involved in adding 'swing' to a mechanistic sequencing style resulted in much 4/4 music based around strict four-bar sections, often using similar samples (being instrumental, tuneful tracker music required distinctive lead voices, of which chimes, pitch-bent guitar tones and rave piano were overused).

Over the 1990s, tracker musicians gravitated to the PC. Tracker music lives today. Computer games still use it, notably the Unreal series and its descendants such as Deus Ex. However, the easy availability of software samplers and sequencers, and the advent of the MP3 format has caused most professional musicians to adopt other music software. Nonetheless, tracker software still exists. Buzz, ModPlug Tracker, MadTracker, Renoise, Skale, CheeseTracker, BeRoTracker and others offer features undreamed-of back in the day (hi-quality output, automation, VST support, internal DSP's and multi-effects, multi I/O cards support etc.). Tracker files have also become popular in the Game Boy Advance community; unlike the original Game Boy, the Game Boy Advance has the processing power to support tracker music, and the quality is vastly superior to the built-in tone generators, while still taking up little space compared to MP3s or other forms of higher-quality audio.

List of trackers

List of well known trackers

See also

External links

fi:Tracker-musiikki pl:Tracker


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